Brian Gladden (CEO of the Strategy and Innovation Institute (SI2)) is a seasoned corporate innovator, Blue Ocean strategist, and business model expert. He has over 30 years of consulting/sales experience with start-ups and Fortune 500 firms such as Verizon, Sprint, Intel, Cisco, and CGI. As an accomplished speaker, mentor, and business coach, Brian has worked with multiple national and international organizations, including Vistage, the Small Business Development Corporation, UC Davis Child Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Start-up Calgary Innovation Week, and many more.
In his current role, Brian is helping executive teams get to market faster and with reduced risk by helping them identify, validate, and build solutions to customers’ biggest problems! “Our vision at SI2 is to inspire business leaders to be innovative so that they can create new solutions for real problems,” reveals the CEO of SI2.
Life Experiences that Groomed for the Thought Leadership Role
There have been many life instances that have shaped Brian into the thought leader he is today. Sports taught him to trust and rely on team members and develop problem-solving skills and discipline. “As a quarterback, I had to put people in the right positions and change the play according to what the competition was doing. No different than business,” shares Brian. Most importantly, it led him to be objective, inclusive and diverse, a must-have leadership trait.
Coming from a family of educators, Brian also possesses a similar pursuit for knowledge, which he has followed to date. While traveling abroad to get his MBA in England, he developed a broader perspective on other cultures. “My biggest life lesson in business that has shaped me as a leader was starting my own business and going bankrupt. The learnings from that experience provided me with the real-world knowledge to help improve my decision making since,” reveals Brian.
Likewise, Brian’s faith has been a large part of his life. “Trying to do the right thing in life and in business is important to me,” shares Brian. On a personal level, Brian’s active involvement in Rotary International from the time he was in high school to today has empowered him to see how other business leaders give back and make a difference in the community.
Conquering Start-up Challenges
According to Brian, the main challenge for any sole proprietor or small firm is that the CEO must wear many hats. He further adds, “As a business owner, you have to think long-term and set the vision and purpose of the company, while at the same time, also execute the daily tasks to keep things going.” Start-up leaders must also focus on reaching and gaining new potential customers. This creates an issue of time and focus for them.
Therefore, to solve the time/focus issue, Brian has created a high-level strategic plan that he not only uses while coaching other people but also implements in his personal life. He also considers surrounding oneself with outstanding people with a shared vision and purpose extremely important. “If you create a group of close networking colleagues, you can leverage their expertise and connections to help further your goals,” reveals Brian. Moreover, the ultimate way to reach more customers is to align with organizations that have instant credibility and are regarded as thought leaders in their areas. “You must create a reason for customers to come to you, versus trying to always find them,” says Brian. “But, the most important start-up challenge (and business challenge in general) is to ensure you are focused on the customers’ needs. It is not about your idea, the technology, or the solution. The main mantra for all of my consulting work is taken from Ash Maurya, the founder of LeanStack—love the problem, not your solution.”
The Inception Story of SI2
For several decades, Brian wanted to own his consulting practice based on strategy and innovation. But he was scared to start another firm after his first attempt went bankrupt in the mid-90s. Brian wanted to prepare himself in every way he could before starting his latest venture. Hence, in 2016, he completed his doctorate degree in business strategy and innovation from Capella University. Additionally, Brian’s previous experience of working with leading consulting firms had enlightened him about the industry lacunae. Many of the consultants in the big firms do not have the years of real-world experience, coupled with advanced degrees, to be consulting a CXO on a critical issue. They also do not use, and are not certified, by the leading strategic innovation best practice frameworks. These firms aim to create their own processes and tools which can be monetized, and ultimately focus on IT system integration more than management consulting.
In 2019, Brian incepted SI2 to help businesses find unmet customer demand and create uncontested market space by using the leading proven strategy and innovation methods to make the competition irrelevant.
What Makes SI2 Unique in the Industry?
There are only a handful of consultants worldwide, such as Brian, who have decades of real-world business experience, are certified in the leading strategy and innovation frameworks, and have a scholarly background in the field. SI2 clients can seek coaching from Brian on a specific framework and tool, or they can simply convey their goals and challenges and let Brian use the right tool and process as needed to get them to the desired outcome.
Moreover, as per the Boston Consulting Group’s 2020 report, a business model on average now lasts only up to 5 yrs. If leaders do not hurry to focus on refreshing and innovating their businesses, chances are someone will disrupt the space and offer better alternatives to their customers. SI2 is among the few firms that help corporations move from product innovation to business model innovation. “SI2 is unique because we help firms to define their strategy and culture, put a formal innovation practice in place, as well as execute and measure their innovation objectives,” states the CEO of SI2.
Performance Over the Years
“We have survived and grown through COVID-19,” shares Brian. During SI2’s first year, Brian took multiple pro-bono projects to prove his work and create testimonials, including free speaking engagements and workshops. These efforts generated minimal traction and revenue for SI2. “When COVID-19 hit in 2020, I assumed it would be a difficult year to grow and get more traction as most businesses were worried about staying in business with the crisis,” reveals Brian. However, the needs of potential customers changed overnight. Businesses were looking for solutions to new problems that didn’t exist in the past. For Brian, this was an opportunity waiting to be tapped. By focusing on clients’ problems, SI2 helped businesses grow, innovate, and compete differently despite the pandemic crisis.
Implementing Ways to Ensure Customer Satisfaction
There are a few steps that Brian implements to ensure client satisfaction. The first is to understand their business, vision, and issues they are trying to solve. This sets the stage for everything. He then tries to customize his coaching and consulting services to best fit their situation and needs. After the engagement, clients are requested to share their testimonials to showcase Brian’s work. “I also ask the client what I could have done better on, so I can continually improve,” mentions Brian.
Assisting Organizations to Create a Culture of Innovation
As a strategic innovation consultant, Brian coaches companies on how to develop their innovation capabilities and teaches them many of the leading strategic innovation frameworks. “To begin with, every company must have a purpose and vision statement. Once a company knows its purpose, new ideas and opportunities are easier to examine,” shares Brian. It is also imperative for businesses to have a starting point to innovate from.
The second step to creating a culture of innovation is to assess where the organization is in terms of leadership support, organizational structure, and innovation practices. Once there is an understanding from executives of their current innovation environment, improvement plans can be created to work on the lowest scoring areas. “For this, I use the Culture Design Canvas tool from Great Mondays to help companies create the actions that will help them live out the culture they want,” mentions Brian. The last step is to map current organizational behaviors that cause positive and negative outcomes regarding innovation. He adds, “To discover the root cause of those behaviors so we can change or emulate them, I use the Culture Map tool from Strategyzer.”
Celebrating a Remarkable Career Trajectory
The first career milestone for Brian was accepting the management role with Sprint for developing partner channels. This opportunity allowed him to view things from many perspectives at once to create solutions for real problems. The next milepost was the opportunity to work with an international firm called Nitto Denko of Japan. Afterward, Brian, being the only retained employee, experienced his first M&A with Leybold Technologies and 4M. Seeing and being a part of a global acquisition helped him see things from a CEO’s perspective.
Later, incepting his first dotcom start-up, only to see it shut down in less than a year, was a huge learning curve for Brian. This experience taught him that there needs to be a validated business model to start any business. He then joined MCI just after the WorldCom scandal. That period showed him how influential culture and ethics are in any industry. Thereon, once with Verizon, making it into the Verizon President’s Club was extra special to Brian.
A Typical Work Day of a Leader
Brian’s typical day at work begins between 7 to 8 am, with most of it spent responding to emails, scheduling new projects, seeking updates on ongoing projects, and attending Zoom calls. He then finishes his work by 5 pm and spends an hour at the gym, followed by having dinner with family. From 9 to 11 pm and sometimes later, he returns to work, prioritizing assignments and Zoom calls for the next day. To help balance his daily life and reduce stress, Brian likes to travel, lift weights, do cross-training, and watch sports. However, his favorite activity is spending time with his wife and 2 teenage daughters (and two female dogs as well).
Dealing with the Pandemic Times
Throughout his whole career, Brian has experienced working both remotely as well as in the office. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian shares that he could reach more people virtually via Zoom than he could have ever dreamed of. Even though there is no substitute for meeting in person, the quick move to video meetings has helped accelerate the adoption of his coaching work. Likewise, using technology in terms of whiteboards like Miro and Mural has been extremely helpful. With life returning to normal in the post-pandemic era, Brian is looking forward to big events and in-person workshops again.
Roadmap Towards a Brighter Future
Currently, SI2 is working with several non-profit social impact companies looking to refresh their business models. The company is also working with a few Fortune 500 firms to help them integrate lean start-up best practices into their corporate innovation processes.
As a consultant and coach, Brian is planning to launch some new CXO peer advisory groups based in the Sacramento region, which he will lead. The aim of these groups is to create an environment where leaders can find and give support, solve problems and achieve their goals among other leaders who face similar challenges. Moreover, he is looking forward to launching the second cohort for a certificate in Innovation & Entrepreneurship in January at the Sacramento State University Carlsen Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
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